Postnatural Design project 3: Unconventional Timepiece
Updated: Oct 28, 2019
Growing up oppositionally defiant toward authority, I've intuited clocks and watches as tools of the oppressor. I suppose it's fairly common—everyone hates 'bedtime'—but the clock face makes the social programming palpable. There was a clock hung directly across my childhood bed—in high school, I would take it down every night believing I could convince my mind I had eight full hours sleep no matter how long my late night phone sessions stretched, as long as I was not confronted by the actual time (don't even get me started about curfews). Accordingly, the watch translates as a time-cuff; I still have not been able to parse its function as a status symbol, or clique ID tag.
I used the prompt to "design an unconventional time piece" as practice an exercise in theoretical subversion, creating a narrative response—a literary device, you could say.
Much like many, the big "hourglass" on my mind is the one counting toward total climate collapse, and this very Western reaction to pretend as though it isn't happening is solidifying the fate (we can't even deal with our own mortality, leading to some truly grim and sometimes dehumanizing "end-of-life" care options when we totally have the capability to design joyful—even pleasurable—habitats for our aging selves, a "one last hurrah" design ideology). The neoliberal response, as usual, is to commodify the response in a way that doesn't threaten our consumption engine—appropriately enlightened, sure, but only as far as it doesn't interrupt the comfort of the cushioned class.
There is an argument that carbon offsets have become the purchasable "Indulgence" absolving the sin of a dirty carbon footprint; that, while there must be a system-wide change in behavior, there is no actual incentive to do so if one can justify an environmentally-unsustainable lifestyle. It's furthered by the fact that 50% of carbon emissions are produced by the wealthiest 10% of the world's population, meaning those who are critically carcinogenic to the atmosphere are the ones who can also afford to pat themselves on the back with an offset purchase. What's more, the wealthier are quicker to define themselves as eco-conscious while the lifestyle is anything but. It's theorized that this is because adhering to a more sustainable lifestyle would alienate them from their social strata/circle.
This theory was translated into a fantastic short speculative-fiction piece called Parasite Air by Trevor Shikaze, which follows the story of a young discouraged worker who is hired by a tech billionaire to live on the smallest viable carbon footprint possible in order to absolve his comically unsustainable lifestyle (for instance having an endangered baobab tree cut down and whittled into cufflinks, saying that the high cost for the privilege would boost the local economy). The protagonist has convinced himself that the billionaire must maintain his exorbitant lifestyle in order to maintain his Silicon Valley significance, and thus the worker believes he is making a sacrifice toward "promising technological advances" by taking on the billionaire's carbon debt.
The story blew my mind, really, and ended up being my inspiration for this project. I went in with the intention of making a visualization that would illustrate what carbon offset "wage work" could look like. The plan was to calculate whether carbon footprints could be so well-annotated that one could actually make a career out of becoming a net-neutralizing agent (a position that needs a body, cannot be automated). From there, I hoped to creatively present the research by way of print artifact, maybe an ad for such a gig with the rates determined by the outcome of my calculations.
The research was actually dizzying, and I totally understand the feeling of the futility of trying to solve the problem with carbon offsets. There are just too many things to count. Offset organizations like Carbon Fund and Carbon Footprint can make some broad emissions calculations based on the most power-intensive commodities (energy, vehicles, travel, etc), but descending into daily decisions, routines, and purchases literally down to each and every fiber on your back is simply overwhelming.
Then, there was the extreme breadth of where to even begin to estimate the carbon footprint size of someone so far outside of my scope of lifestyle, that just entering research into aviation habits of the ultra wealthy sent me down a rabbit hole. Calculating my own footprint was not much clearer; somehow my educational expenses made a significant difference in my total emissions (enter something facetious about the carbon cost of NYU). In the time I had, I would not be able to find a result to respond to visually.
I still wanted to comment on the idea however, so I decided to make my own speculative response to Trevor Shikaze's work, a piece of inspired fan art. This summer I participated in a world-building workshop with Ingrid Burrington and Tim Vaughan, and it gave me awesome framework for this process. Now that I think of it, speculative narrative has been a big part of my work at ITP. I began sketching out ideas for an alternative "Fiverr" site offering paid gig work for carbon offset agents.
I started with some themes:
-Youth blood transfusions
-IoT/internet of things
-plutocracy in meritocracy’s skin
-Startup fetishization (help innovators innovate)
Then mixed the research with inspiration from Parasite Air to brainstorm copy:
POTENTIAL CAMPAIGN LANGUAGE
do nothing, get paid (variations: ‘Nothing’ Matters.)
go green, make green
Appealing to introverts, luddites, discouraged workers,
A new way for The 99% to join the 1%.
For the website design, I mimicked a remix of what I call "Fiverr meets Greenpeace." Here are some screen shots:
What I would change
This is definitely staying in the "developing" folder. I'm really enjoying this type of research output, and want to create more time to flesh it out. I got some great critique during class from Tega about adjusting some of the delivery to make it more convincing, and how to start thinking about incorporating future research. I think the first step is really just trying to enumerate carbon costs of as much as I can observe as possible (next to surveying for a broader set). Then I think the narrative comes out of the numbers. Finally, I'd want to present the critique clearly, which is another thing I believe comes with further development.